Last week, in Seniors and Heart Disease Part I, we discussed the various ways that heart disease can impact the health and independence of the human body. Heart disease most commonly targets those over 65, and while some congenital conditions can affect women and men of any age, seniors should be the most alert to the risk factors of heart disease. Aging affects the body in ways that raise the risk of heart disease, and this week we discuss what caregivers, home care aides and loved ones can do about it.

Since men and women above 65 fall prey to heart disease most often, around the world, knowing how age itself is a risk factor is the first step in prevention. As the body ages, it changes in ways that make heart disease more probable. The National Institute of Health’s US National Library of Medicine website lists these changes that develop in the aging body:

  • “The Heart:
    • The heart has a natural pacemaker system that controls the heartbeat. Some of the pathways of this system may develop fibrous tissue and fat deposits. The natural pacemaker (the SA node) loses some of its cells. These changes may result in a slightly slower heart rate.
    • A slight increase in the size of the heart, especially the left ventricle, is not uncommon. The heart wall thickens, so the amount of blood that the chamber can hold may actually decrease despite the increased overall heart size. The heart may fill more slowly.
    • Heart changes cause the ECG of a normal, healthy older person to be slightly different than the ECG of a healthy younger adult. Abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias), such as atrial fibrillation, are more common in older people. They may be caused by heart disease.
    • Normal changes in the heart include deposits of the “aging pigment,” lipofuscin. The heart muscle cells degenerate slightly. The valves inside the heart, which control the direction of blood flow, thicken and become stiffer. A heart murmur caused by valve stiffness is fairly common in older people.
  • Blood vessels:
    • Receptors called baroreceptors monitor the blood pressure and make changes to help maintain a fairly constant blood pressure when a person changes positions or is doing other activities. The baroreceptors become less sensitive with aging. This may explain why many older people have orthostatic hypotension, a condition in which the blood pressure falls when a person goes from lying or sitting to standing. This causes dizziness because there is less blood flow to the brain.
    • The capillary walls thicken slightly. This may cause a slightly slower rate of exchange of nutrients and wastes.
    • The main artery from the heart (aorta) becomes thicker, stiffer, and less flexible. This is probably related to changes in the connective tissue of the blood vessel wall. This makes the blood pressure higher and makes the heart work harder, which may lead to thickening of the heart muscle (hypertrophy). The other arteries also thicken and stiffen. In general, most older people have a moderate increase in blood pressure.
  • Blood:
    • The blood itself changes slightly with age. Normal aging causes a reduction in total body water. As part of this, there is less fluid in the bloodstream, so blood volume decreases.
    • The speed with which red blood cells are produced in response to stress or illness is reduced. This creates a slower response to blood loss and anemia.
    • Most of the white blood cells stay at the same levels, although certain white blood cells important to immunity (neutrophils) decrease in their number and ability to fight off bacteria. This reduces the ability to resist infection.”

In addition, loved ones over 65 tend to experience the following factors that can make the senior heart work harder as it becomes less able physiologically to do so: some medications, injuries, illness, infections, overexertion, and even emotional stress. Know your risk factors by checking the following numbers and level with your healthcare professional:

  • Your blood glucose levels
    • High blood glucose (blood sugar) can be indicative of diabetes. Sixty percent of all deaths of diabetics are attributed to cardiovascular disease, and untreated diabetes puts you at a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Your blood pressure
    • Called the ‘silent killer’ because it typically gives no warning and shows no symptoms, high blood pressure is the top risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Your ‘body’ stats
    • Monitor your cholesterol levels, your weight, and your body mass index (BMI), in addition to your blood pressure and blood glucose. These risk factors can be addressed with diet and exercise.
  • Your ‘smoker’ status
    • OK, you already know this: smoking will kill you. But did you know that if it doesn’t get you with lung cancer, it will get you with heart disease? Smoking will damage the inner lining of your arteries, can cause a build-up of fatty tissue that’s just as dangerous as plaque, and makes your blood more likely to clot. Smoking’s bad, okay?

If you want to measure your overall heart ‘smarts’, you can take the World Heart Day’s test here:  Caregivers, home care aides and loved ones can educate themselves about the risks of heart disease, and can take simple measures to reduce the likelihood of a slew of heart problems.